TR Daily Lawmakers Suggest Possible TAC Chair Conflict in Ligado Decision
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Friday, June 12, 2020

Lawmakers Suggest Possible TAC Chair Conflict in Ligado Decision

Several members of the House Armed Services Committee said they are concerned that Dennis Roberson, chair of the FCC’s Technological Advisory Council, had at least an appearance of a conflict of interest in the FCC’s unanimous Ligado Networks LLC decision because he also was a consultant to Ligado. The lawmakers asked FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to refer the matter to the agency’s inspector general.

“We write to you today to ask about a troubling appearance of a conflict of interest within your [TAC] that may cast doubt on the commission’s decision to approve the operations of Ligado’s L band terrestrial communications network,” said a letter yesterday to Mr. Pai from Reps. Jim Cooper (D., Tenn.), chairman of the House strategic forces subcommittee, and Michael R. Turner (R., Ohio), the subcommittee’s ranking member, and Elise Stefanik (R., N.Y), ranking member of the intelligence and emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee.

“We understand that the Commission’s definition of ‘harmful interference’ is based upon spectrum management principles derived from a series of technical white papers and spectrum policy recommendations authored by the Commission’s Technological Advisory [Council] (TAC). We also understand there was a public comment period solicited by the Office of Engineering and Technology in December 2017 on the proposed spectrum management principles. We are concerned that the Commission ignored the concerns of GPS and other satellite user communities, resulting in spectrum management principles that do not account for the unique impacts on those users,” the lawmakers said. “According to the Commission’s website, the chairman of the TAC is Mr. Dennis Roberson, who is credited as an author on several of the white papers and policy recommendations used to define spectrum management policy. Mr. Roberson is also the Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of Roberson and Associates (RAA), a technology and management consulting company.

At a May 21 briefing held for the House panel, “your technical experts … told the committee much of the technical data the Commission used to confirm the judgement that Ligado provides no risk of harmful interference to GPS users was based upon a test performed by RAA for Covington and Burling LLP, counsel to Ligado networks in June of 2016,” the lawmakers added. “The RAA test is referenced more than eighty times in the approval order and was clearly a significant factor in the Commission’s decision. In addition to this testing to support Ligado’s technical claims, he publicly advocated against the testing standard recommended by GPS experts.”

“The Technological Advisory Council Charter requires members to disclose on a continuing basis any interests in, or connections to persons or entities that are, or will be regulated by or who have interests before the Commission to you, as the official to whom the council reports,” the letter said. “Based on the facts outlined above, Mr. Roberson has a connection to Ligado, and a recusal from related policy development could have prevented an appearance of a conflict of interest.

“In light of this, we respectfully ask for answers to the following questions: 1) Please provide your analysis of how Mr. Roberson’s involvement in advising the FCC on developing spectrum management policy in his role as chairman of the Commission’s Technological Advisory Council while also being paid by Ligado to verify Ligado’s technical arguments does not, at minimum, give rise to the appearance of a conflict of interest? 2) Did Mr. Roberson or the Commission staff disclose his interests and connection to Ligado to you? 3) Can you provide the date on which Mr. Roberson was briefed by Commission officials regarding his ethical responsibilities and duty to avoid conflicts of interest? 4) We ask that you refer this matter to the FCC Inspector General for a review of the potential conflict of interest,” the lawmakers concluded.

The three lawmakers are among 23 members of the House Armed Services Committee who last month wrote the FCC to complain about the Ligado order (TR Daily, May 8), which was adopted in April (TR Daily, April 20). The FCC’s Ligado order is opposed by a number of federal government agencies, including the Department of Defense, and a myriad of private-sector entities that rely on the Global Positioning System.

Mr. Roberson is a long-time TAC chair who is also a research professor in computer science and law at Illinois Institute of Technology, executive chairman of Entigenlogic, and former chief technology officer of Motorola, Inc. He is also a member of the Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee (CSMAC), which advises the National Telecommunications and Information Administration on spectrum issues.

Roberson and Associates is often retained by entities with business before the FCC. For example, the firm has done work for critical infrastructure industry (CII) utility groups in the FCC’s 6 gigahertz band proceeding, for T-Mobile US, Inc., concerning contraband cellphone technologies, and for Globalstar, Inc., related to the satellite operator’s terrestrial low power service (TLPS) in the 2.4 GHz band.

In an interview with TR Daily this afternoon, Mr. Roberson said he was “both surprised and terribly disappointed to see this sort of innuendo-based letter presented, and disappointed as well that there would be a perception that the FCC would not have carefully vetted the members of the TAC and controlled the discussion and the inputs to have nothing to do with any current proceeding. … The TAC does not deal with current proceedings, and we’re very, very careful to avoid any consideration about current proceedings.”

He also noted that a TAC paper on harm-claim interference thresholds was completed in 2014 before he began consulting for Ligado.

The 2017 request for comment mentioned in the lawmakers’ letter refers to a public notice issued by the Office of Engineering and Technology on various spectrum policy recommendations of the TAC over several years, including in the 2014 harm-claim threshold paper (TR Daily, Dec. 1, 2017).

An FCC spokesperson said the agency would review the lawmakers’ letter.

Ligado said today that “Roberson and Associates’ expertise is so well-known and well-regarded that many federal agencies, including the NTIA and the DoD, rely on Dennis Roberson as an expert. It is unfortunate that the conversation has sunk to the level of personal attacks. It is simply a way to distract from the facts that led to the FCC’s bipartisan, unanimous decision.” —Paul Kirby, [email protected]

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